M.I.A.: Let the Kids Run Wild
“I might have to delete this.” M.I.A. has her hands around the voice recorder. “You have, like, the craziest interview.” My hands are around the recorder too, but tighter. For a split second, it looks like she’s going to press the button and nuke the whole interview. A silver nail hovers.
You could forgive M.I.A. for wanting to hit delete now and then. Her tongue has got her in trouble enough times; even now, with five albums behind her, she lacks the media-trained sense of self-preservation that many musicians of her status and reputation eventually acquire.
We’ve met for the interview at London’s Southbank Centre, and for the last half-hour she’s been talking about the failures of feminism, about Apple spying on us through our phones, about capitalism and Kendall Jenner – and she’s halfway through hinting at Julian Assange’s role in her new project when we’re told to wrap up. “I just gave out the worst interview ever! I said crazy shit,” she moans to her assistant as we walk away. After the fallout from various interviews she’s given over the years, it’s understandable that she might be a little anxious. And as the saying goes: just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you.
Mathangi Arulpragasam’s carefree stunts and controversial statements have kept her on the edge of superstardom throughout her career. Raised by her seamstress single mum in south London after the family fled Sri Lanka as refugees, she “blagged” her way into Central Saint Martins, where her vibrant, hip-hop inspired art stood out a mile from her fellow students’ dour conceptualism. Her first gallery exhibition sold out immediately, and she recycled her pixelated collages in the artwork for her debut album, 2005’s Arular.
Arular, and its mixtape predecessor Piracy Funds Terrorism, dazzled critics and club kids alike with its cut-and-paste bricolage of sounds airlifted from the global south, a 21st century concoction of baile funk, hip-hop, dancehall and synth pop partly produced by then-boyfriend Diplo. Her aesthetic and attitude has never really changed, but it’s a potent combination, one that’s drawn her as many detractors as fans. Even now she cuts a lonely figure in the industry – until One Direction’s Zayn Malik launched his solo career, M.I.A. was the only South Asian pop star in sight. (The connection was noted – he appears on Freedun, from last year’s AIM).
But Arulpragasam’s fame and notoriety are more than a twist of fate – she’s had the nous and the confidence to write herself into history at every opportunity. When her hit Paper Planes was sampled on T.I.’s Swagger Like Us, she stole the show at his Grammys performance, rapping next to Kanye West in a belly-hugging dress while nine months pregnant. At the 2012 Super Bowl half-time show she pulled the same trick on Madonna, directing her middle finger at the TV cameras and landing herself a $16 million lawsuit from the NFL. But in 2017, with Ariana Grande marching against Trump, Katy Perry making “purposeful pop” and Beyoncé turning up to the Super Bowl in Black Panther gear (not to mention performing at the Grammys with a visible baby bump), M.I.A.’s sloganeering agit-pop antics seem less remarkable. Wokeness is all around – but somehow, she notices, she still isn’t saying what people want to hear.
Last year her comments about the celebrity endorsement of Black Lives Matter lost her a headline slot at the Afropunk London festival – but if she’s wary of speaking out of turn, it doesn’t show. M.I.A. remains resolutely earnest in conversation – direct, passionate, occasionally naïve, always mistrustful of authority. And this year, with refugees and border walls dominating news headlines, her future-facing attitude makes her the ideal curator for London’s Meltdown festival, an event that often draws the most attention with heritage acts and nostalgic reunions. Refreshingly, she had no idea about this.
“I’ve never been to a Meltdown before and I didn’t know what it was about,” she admits as we take a seat in her makeshift dressing room. “So I just did whatever. [Southbank] were like, ‘Oh, you obviously haven’t been here before,’ and sort of brushed it under the carpet,” she laughs. It’s classic M.I.A. – take on a huge project, get stuck in, and don’t worry about how anyone has done it before. Efficient, but risky. She’s also one of the youngest curators ever to be chosen, and only the fifth woman (ANOHNI curated in 2012, before she had publicly adopted female pronouns) compared to 21 men. “Really? Wow. I didn’t know that,” she says, considering the weight of the gender imbalance. “That’s crazy.”
This year’s Meltdown is bookended by politics, with the UK’s general election on 8 June and World Refugee Day on 20 June, which M.I.A. will mark with a day of activities led by refugee artists and charities. It’s a potent moment to spotlight diaspora musicians, from righteous reggae star I-Wayne to Nigerian-British MC Afrikan Boy, who raps about fake passports and border controls. M.I.A. has even faced her own immigration issues in recent years, locked out of the US until last autumn despite her celebrity status and the fact her son is half-American. “Couldn’t get a visa all through Obama,” she says pointedly.
Meltdown curators typically book their musical heroes, but almost every act on M.I.A.’s line-up is younger than her, from Mercury Prize winners Young Fathers to French Afro-trap star MHD to art-rap provocateur Mykki Blanco. The closest she gets to “heritage” is Soulwax, the Belgian dance-rock outfit, and Le Tigre’s JD Samson, who both rode the same post-electro clash wave as M.I.A.’s early singles Galang and Bucky Done Gun.
But M.I.A.’s priority, she explains, was to book artists who wouldn’t normally get to play the Southbank – rappers like Brooklyn newcomer Young M.A, for example. “They’re two worlds that don’t mix. I could have been retrospective, but the artists that I was influenced by are quite big – I can’t really book Blur and Oasis and shit like that. Although I did try,” she grins, bringing to mind her attempt to book Radiohead publicly via Twitter. “I chose artists who are young enough to not be influenced by the industry – I just wanted to put them all in a room and have a discussion about an alternative existence for musicians. Is there a way out of the pyramid, out of the monetised structure? I think I chose artists that are the most vulnerable.”
Now aged 41 (according to the internet’s best estimate), M.I.A. could be framed as a mother figure to many of these artists, yet she’s oddly ageless – not in a frozen-forehead sort of way, more like an art school Peter Pan. Earlier she’d strolled onto the roof of the Southbank in a see-through jumpsuit covered in shiny spots, turning herself into giant mirror ball in the spring sunshine. Between shots she’d sat cross-legged on the deck, taking selfies with her make-up artist. “The kids still are connected to me and I’m still connected to them,” she offers. “I don’t know how, but it’s like that, without me making a conscious effort. I think that’s just what I draw like a magnet. And maybe it’s the time for me to connect with them and have a chat, and be some sort of… helpful… useful…” Mentor? “Mentor, yeah. I dunno.”
Some of her Meltdown selections feel like direct descendents: there’s Princess Nokia, the Afro-Latina rapper and video director with outspoken politics and a DIY attitude, and Tommy Genesis, the Vancouver art school oddball adopted by Atlanta’s Awful Records. Most of her picks are “mixtures of different things,” she adds. The idea is to have “a whole bunch of people that all think differently coming together, connected on a different idea than money.”
This sense of being a “mixture”, constantly slipping between categories, both defines and frustrates M.I.A. – the Sri Lankan refugee with an Oscar nomination, the political agitator with a Versace clothing line, the Chuck D-inspired renegade with a billionaire baby daddy. “I’ve always been in the middle,” she says. “Not intelligent enough for the intelligentsia, not thuggy enough for the thuggy street thing. Not entrepreneurial enough to be the business rapper, and not wacky enough to be, like, a tripping-on-LSD, running-naked-through-the-woods artist either. Those are all parameters that I sit right in the middle of.”
She feels it most keenly as a woman of colour in the mainstream, where no one else looks or sounds like her. “It’s interesting that in America the problem you’re allowed to talk about is Black Lives Matter,” she told the Evening Standard last year in the interview that lost her the Afropunk slot. “It’s not a new thing to me — it’s what Lauryn Hill was saying in the 1990s, or Public Enemy in the 1980s. Is Beyoncé or Kendrick Lamar going to say Muslim ives Matter? Or Syrian Lives Matter? That’s a more interesting question.” Tellingly, the artist who came to her defence was Zayn Malik, who wrote in an expletive-filled note: “U guys keep forgetting that black is not something we share as an ethnicity it’s something we share as a GLOBAL STRUGGLE.”
Far from regretting her choice of words, M.I.A. seems emboldened by the uproar. It proved to her what she suspected all along: that America, and American artists, simply have no idea how much their popular culture dominates the world. Questioned on why she’s booked Yung Lean, the white Swedish “sad boy” who’s been criticised for lifting his “iced out”, mumble-rap persona from black US rappers like Chief Keef, she reframes those grievances in typically broad strokes.
"For Meltdown I chose artists who are young enough to not be influenced by the industry – I wanted to have a discussion about an alternative existence for musicians"
“I chose Yung Lean because he’s still a product of society. I don’t think that it’s fair to be like, ‘He’s culturally appropriating rap,’ because rap has been super aggressive in its business to sell itself to the world. How dare rap music turn around and go, ‘You can’t have this thing’? You can’t have it both ways. [If] you sell to the world and get rich, don’t dictate to people afterwards what they can and can’t hear. And he is a product of all of that confusion. It’s not like he’s jumping up and down doing somersaults, going, ‘Oh my god, my life is great.’ He’s part of a movement called Sad Boys – it’s quite a depressed situation! And I really thought that was an important aspect, the way he reflects it, cause if he’s not getting joy out of it then it’s important to show rap music that this is how it trickles down.”
A few days before our interview, Pepsi had unveiled its preposterous (and quickly withdrawn) TV ad starring reality star Kendall Jenner as a literal white saviour, defusing a protest by handing a police officer a can of the world’s second favourite carbonated drink. “#JoinTheConversation”, read the placards at Pepsi’s vaguely anti-something “protest”. As someone who’s been so noisily (her critics would say objectionably) political for so long, how does she feel about the sudden vogue for wokeness? Has hashtag activism been absorbed and commercialised like any other countercultural movement?
“That’s a tough question. I think about this all the time,” she ponders. “The thing is, on the one hand I encourage people to have political opinions, so when they do I can’t be like, errr – you know? I think it’s fine. But on the other hand, everyone’s using artists as puppets and still keeping shit ambiguous.” In what way? “For example, a lot of people are like, okay, I’m not going to talk about the war, I’m not going to talk about refugees, I’m just going to talk about being a woman. It’s almost easy to do that without actually taking it in and really evolving as a person.”
There’s no space for women to express an alternative to the mainstream narrative, she thinks. American musicians are encouraged to support feminism, “yet we can’t apply the same understanding to a girl in Afghanistan to be vocal about what her experiences are. If they don’t suit the main massive common wave of thinking, in the mainstream, she’s not allowed a platform.”
Pop got political, “yet we’re still discussing the same issues within the same goalposts. To me it’s not much of a change,” she continues. So the conversations are still not wide enough? “Still not wide enough, because when we say women, we’re not including the Syrian 14-year-old who’s like, ’It’s not Assad who’s bombing me, I don’t know who’s bombing me, but this is what’s happening to me.’ She has to say, ‘Assad is bombing me,’ because in the west we want that, we want only that propaganda where she has to be part of that dialogue. So to me, all of these things can only go so far.”
Conveniently for her critics, M.I.A. doesn’t speak in the nuanced, coded language of the academic but in the passionate, occasionally jumbled language of the student campaigner. And for every canny observation, there’s the occasional serious blunder. When she warned us in 2010’s The Message that Google was helping the government to spy on our emails, critics scoffed at her conspiracy theorising – until she was proved right after Edward Snowden’s NSA revelations.
"A person in a small house with a bit of equipment can make a track and 50 kids in the slums love it. They've changed shit. That's what it's about"
Yet her friendship with whistleblowing-enabler Julian Assange has seemed dangerously naïve. She confirms she’s still in touch with the Wikileaks founder and suggests he may even play a role in Meltdown, despite the fact Assange has spent the past five years hiding from a rape charge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in London, where his visitors have included Nigel Farage. In May, shortly after our interview, the rape investigation was dropped. M.I.A. immediately took to Instagram to defend her friend, suggesting Assange was framed by the powers that be. “He helped you to see hypocrisy,” she wrote, “you should thank him.”
So does she feel like her work as an artist – the music, the videos, the entire self-built aesthetic – has been overshadowed by these controversies? Or, in fact, has she always imagined M.I.A. to be a platform for these very discussions? She pauses. “Yeah,” she says. The latter. She still believes that music can make a difference in the world, as trite as that seems in an era when activism itself has a commercial veneer. “You know, a person in a small house with a bit of equipment, off the grid, off the internet – you make a track, you play it in your local wherever, 50 kids in your slums love it, you’ve already changed shit. You’ve already changed the game and you haven’t even been anywhere yet. And that’s what it’s about.”
The genius of M.I.A. resides in an improbable combination of restless creativity and deep suspicion – of authority, of the music industry, of capitalism and government. Her answers soon snowball into a scattered diatribe against hip-hop’s commercialisation, “CEO rappers” selling out to corporations, Apple buying up the music industry while ratting us out to the government. “They’re just a massive Rolodex,” she says of her tech giant nemesis, before finally pulling up. “God, I’m saying all the wrong things in this interview. You’d better make it about unicorns and fucking ponies.” It’s barely more incendiary than anything else she’s told an interviewer in the past ten years, but priorities change. After all, we’re sipping tea in a taxpayer-funded arts institution. Perhaps the renegade has finally joined the establishment; the art student who never grew up has turned mentor to her variegated offspring.
Her hands grip the recorder still. “Listen, kids,” she says quietly, addressing her unseen charges. “Just get out there, and get off the internet.”
M.I.A.’s Meltdown takes place at the Southbank Centre, London, from 9-18 June